Tomorrow Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform the halftime show at the Super Bowl. After last year's Prince show, I thought we all understood that the Super Bowl halftime show is the official mainstream signal that an artist has completed a successful comeback into the good graces of the critical campaign and the mass media. It is the moment where the musician ceases to be an iconoclast, a hermit, a misanthrope, publicity-averse, a druggie dropout on the downward swing of the Behind the Music sine wave, and returns to being a person we all feel proud to enjoy.
But I've heard some disturbing rumbles of Petty hatred in my social circles since the news broke. It baffles me. Haven't these people gotten the memo? Petty has always been great, and now he's back and willing to perform for us. We've realized that he was not part of some embarrassing fad or some corporate sellout, and now we can appreciate the music he's never stopped making. Petty is officially a rock icon.
And I'm not just talking about some kind of NFL-controlled beatification process. I'm saying that, as a Petty fan from way back, I'm ready to welcome the rest of you with open arms, only to see some folks still turning up their noses. Sometimes it takes a long time for the cognoscenti to accept hitmakers as artists worthy of serious consideration. But it's been long enough for Tom Petty.
Noel put together an inventory of classic Petty opening lines a year and a half ago, and every single one of them made me want to hear the whole song. I know it's hard to sift his unique qualities from the classic rock sludge -- a fate that has befallen a whole generation or two of rockers who've gotten stuck in that ghetto, cheek by jowl with Foghat and Flock Of Seagulls -- but even a playlist of Petty's hits, let alone the choice album cuts and the post-superstar work, would reveal something special. The rootsy growl, the ringing Byrdesque 12-strings, the spacious sound and the unpretentious songwriting, as if down deep it should really be all so simple. The vacillation between minimalism and swirling complexity, each facet making the other sparkle. Above all, the sharp, smooth mix of swamp burble and Southern California light at magic hour, a kind of through-the-looking-glass Americana that might have happened if rural and urban, East and West bent all the way through the fourth dimension and touched shores.
I count myself a fawning slavering fan of only a few acts, all of them part of some crucial stage in my maturation. ELO because of my older brother (thanks, Dwayne). The Beatles because of my friend Cheryl (thanks, pal). Todd Rundgren in college by the grace of God. And Tom Petty thanks to a run of incredible luck during a summer spent in Nashville when I won concert tickets on KDF twice in two months, took my fellow intern Leah to the Southern Accents show, causing her to return the favor when she won a trip to L.A. to spend New Year's Eve with the Heartbreakers. The other concert, by the way, was Don Henley, and while I still harbor affection for many tracks off Building The Perfect Beast, it didn't make me a lifelong Henley fan. At some point, the quality and significance of the body of work tips the scales.
The Super Bowl halftime show isn't exactly a showcase at Carnegie Hall, I know -- not the best venue for demonstrating greatness. But it should be, for Petty, a validation. There's nobody like him, and I feel privileged to have shaken his hand on New Year's Eve, 1986 -- but even more privileged to have listened to his powerful, beautiful music for three decades.